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Defensive line needs to improve quick for Seahawks to make deep postseason run

A unit with a ton of promise has made advances at stopping the run in November, but needs to transform into a premier pass rushing group to help Seattle contend in 2017

NFL: Atlanta Falcons at Seattle Seahawks Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

By the time you read this there might already be more clarity around the Seattle Seahawks’ decision to release veteran pass rusher Dwight Freeney following Monday’s loss to the Atlanta Falcons, but as of this writing the move remains perplexing.

Perhaps Freeney initially signed with the Seahawks because at 4-2 he viewed them as a legit title contender missing only the pass rush presence of Cliff Avril and therefore an opportunity to collect his second Super Bowl ring, but now, at 6-4 and eighth in the loaded NFC plus wracked by injuries, Freeney no longer believes Seattle is a contender and wanted out. It’s also possible Freeney got injured or otherwise felt himself physically breaking down after a month back on the field. If the choice was the team’s, it might have been a financial consideration, but since Freeney was playing on a minimum contract at the veteran exception level it’s hard to see how they will be able to save money after they replace his roster spot.

More probably the Seahawks made the sacrifice to resolve another roster need: John Schneider may be looking to add a running back with recently-promoted Mike Davis sidelined the next few weeks with a groin pull, or sign another cornerback which has become another area foully stricken by recent injuries. The most Pete Carroll thing to do would be replace Freeney with another fullback, a position Carroll loves to utilize but Seattle has done without since Tre Madden went on injured reserve after the Washington Redskins game. There’s also some chance Malik McDowell has recovered enough from his catastrophic concussion from the dune buggy accident over the summer to be cleared to play in 2017 and rejoin the team, although that would come at the cost of a year of team control and swapping McDowell for Freeney would be a deep drop along the experience curve.

Since the New England Patriots also cut former Seahawks defensive end Cassius Marsh on Tuesday, fan speculation swirls that Seattle might be interested in bringing him back—but there’s no guarantee Marsh will make it through waiver claims and, though younger, Marsh seems unlikely to bring any more production than Freeney was offering at this point anyway apart from adding special teams capability. Either way it would be a longshot to hazard the team parted ways with Freeney specifically to target Marsh.

But if Freeney was healthy and wanted to keep playing, and the Seahawks don’t bring in Marsh or activate McDowell or insert another useful defensive lineman, the choice will look exceedingly peculiar given that advanced play from the front four rotation is probably the key to salvaging Seattle’s ambition for another Super Bowl run.

In pro football, pass rush is a great equalizer; although it generally takes a superior all-around squad to qualify at the top of a playoff bracket and power a club through the postseason gauntlet to a championship, of the last 10 years the lowest-rated groups by regular season DVOA that were able to claim the trophy (2007 New York Giants, 14th; 2011 Giants, 12th; 2012 Baltimore Ravens, eighth; 2015 Denver Broncos, eighth) mostly did so because of deadly defensive line play (respectively, by adjusted sack percentage: first, third, ninth, first). The Ravens in 2012 is a bit of an exception, as you can see, but Baltimore’s defense was also healthier (remember “deer antler spray”) in the playoffs and although Joe Flacco’s fire passing stretch gets more notably discussed the Ravens had a steep spike in defensive DVOA during that postseason. They sacked opponents nine times during the four-game stretch.

With Michael Bennett, Cliff Avril and Frank Clark at the ends and Jarran Reed and Nazair Jones in the interior, the Seahawks in 2017 were expected to have a monstrous defensive front, even before they acquired premier tackle Sheldon Richardson at the roster deadline to complete the notorious “Death Row” pass rush combination. With Freeney substituting after Avril’s departure with nerve damage, the group retained some semblance of that promise even though they had been fairly average statistically through 10 games.

They feel like what I think about when I see a sledgehammer, which has a name that sounds overpowering—a furious destructive tool—but compared to modern machinery is not really an elite performer for breaking through the likes of concrete or bricks.

At the moment Seattle is 17th in adjusted sack rate and 16th in rushing tackles for loss value, however that latter figure is a huge improvement over earlier in the season when the Seahawks were mysteriously one of the worst teams at stopping runners in the backfield. Seattle’s now has a TFL percentage of 20.4 percent, short of its 24.5 percent rate in 2016 without Richardson or Jones, but in the last three weeks has turned opponent runs into negative yards or no gain 27.1 percent of the time—a value that would be best in the league if done across the whole season.

Of course that recent improvement versus the rush has come with Freeney in the mix, and run defense only matters if you can make the other team pay when it resorts to the pass—in the “make them one-dimensional” model that drives Carroll’s scheme. That philosophy is designed around the aerial supremacy the Seahawks have cultivated since 2011 with Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor shutting down the deeper parts of the field. Granted Shaquill Griffin should return this week or against the Philadelphia Eagles at the latest after his concussion Monday, and the Falcons were probably more equipped to take advantage than most, but the Atlanta loss demonstrated Seattle may not be able to count on lockdown coverage the remainder of the season.

I was a Seahawks fan long before Carroll arrived but my favorite parts of football are the running game and secondary play, so my sensibilities matched Carroll’s outlook for winning football. However, if this particular Seattle group in its contemporary state of collective health is going to rally from its divisional deficit or penetrate beyond the first round of the playoffs and farther, it has become imperative to leap into a more modernized football dynamic—stripped down to quarterback excellence and defending the pass from the line of scrimmage.

The Seahawks got solid contributions early in 2017 from defensive line role players Marcus Smith and Branden Jackson, but Jackson hasn’t made a tackle since Halloween and Smith missed the Arizona Cardinals game and had no impact against the Falcons. Quinton Jefferson still barely plays. Richardson finally notched his first sack on the last series of the Atlanta game, but it was the unit’s only takedown of Matt Ryan all game. Dion Jordan had an explosive return to action versus Arizona, flashing potential to be a side-altering force, but made little noise on Monday in his 19 snaps resetting expectations back the appropriate potential of a walk-on contributor. Reed missed almost all the last two weeks. Even Bennett and Clark, who with Freeney and Avril gone account for half of all Seattle sacks by active players, haven’t generated much pressure in the last few weeks.

As a group, this defensive line will have to take over as the dominant force on the Seahawks in the remaining six-plus games to give the team a chance at its preseason goals, and doing so involves an elevation in performance by every single one. The situation Seattle faces now is like being at a construction site with a sledgehammer, when a wrecking ball is called for.